"That's how long I want to live: 75 years .... Living too long ... robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic."
-- From "Why I Hope to Die at 75," by Ezekiel Emanuel, The Atlantic, Sept. 2014
In his final years, my dad was hospitalized several times. He had a blockage in his kidney. He fell and broke his hip. He passed away last year, finally succumbing to old age and cancer.
I thought of my dad when I read Ezekiel Emanuel's article about his desire to die at 75. I thought of how much both of us would have missed had he followed Emanuel's grim philosophy.
My dad lived well past 80. Despite his health issues, he continued to live a full life and never stopped teaching me valuable lessons right up until the day he died. My dad continued to be an excellent role model for me as I witnessed his resilience, optimism and gentle strength during all of the challenges he faced.
Contrary to what Emanuel believes, our memories of loved ones who have passed aren't limited to their final moments. I have clear memories of my dad from when I was a child, a college student, starting my own business and family, going through my separation and divorce, and yes, during the last few years of his life when his health was declining. I cherish all those memories. Isn't that true for most of us?
But it's Emanuel's limited definition of a full life that I find most distressing. He seems to believe that we are like machines, void of value when we are no longer producing at work or adding to the world's knowledge.
Our value as human beings extends far beyond our productive capacity. It includes our capacity to love and be loved, our capacity to listen to others without judgment and with compassion, our capacity to make a difference for others, and even our capacity to appreciate the beauty of the world around us.
We can both contribute value and find value in life at any age.
The three keys to happiness are having quality relationships, having the ability to engage in activities that grab our full attention, and making a difference in the lives of others.
While all of these may alter somewhat as we age, it is still possible to have a full and productive life as long as we live. How might these three keys play out as we age?
1. Having Quality Relationships.
Sometimes as people age and their physical abilities decline, their relationships actually improve. We may have to give up some activities, freeing up more time to spend with loved ones. We also may also have less stress in our lives, making us more emotionally available to others.
In my father's case, as his cognitive ability declined, he was able to access more of his emotions and his kind and loving nature fully emerged. He may have been less likely to give advice on how to solve a problem, but he was able to listen with his full attention and a caring heart so that often I could figure out my own solution.
So, as we age, the nature of our relationships may shift somewhat -- as they do throughout our lives -- but they can be just as meaningful. Older people can reflect on their lives and share with others the wisdom they have learned about what really matters and what does not. They can continue to shower family and friends with love and acceptance.
2. Having the Ability to Engage in Activities.
While the specific activities in which we engage may have to change over time due to increasing physical limitations, many people with functional limitations continue to thrive and enjoy their lives. Instead of focusing on what they can no longer do, those who age well tend to focus on what they can do. Physical limitations might preclude us from playing golf or tennis, but we can play bridge, paint, and try new things. As people of any age engage in new activities, learn new things, and meet new people, they often feel energized.
3. Making a Difference in the Lives of Others.
How we make a difference in the lives of others also will change as we age. Perhaps in younger years, they climbed on roofs and built homes for Habitat for Humanity. But as they age, they are still able to contribute money and expertise to causes they believe in. Retired businessmen work as volunteer mentors for SCORE, a nonprofit dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground. Senior citizens volunteer to tutor children at local elementary schools. Plenty of people in their seventies, eighties and even nineties continue to volunteer or find other ways to make a difference in the lives of others.
Yes, mental processing speed, memory, and problem-solving abilities may decline as people age. So what? They might replace those talents with other valuable attributes like their ability to listen without judgment and a caring heart, or the time to really be with someone because they are no longer running off to the next productive task. Aging adults may think slower, but they have wisdom they acquired over the years that allows them to contribute even with reduced processing speeds.
We are not machines that need to be turned off when we are no longer economically productive. We are people, connected to other people, and with wonderful value outside of our productive capacity.
Why is spending time with our family less valuable then creating something new? You might be creating memories your children and grandchildren will cherish for years. Ten years after your death, I wonder which would matter more to them -- the time they had with you in your later years or memories of your biggest lifetime accomplishment at work?
Why is accepting who you are and role modeling for those around you how to live as an older adult with grace and dignity less valuable then publishing another paper, making another sale, or completing another project at work?
Each stage of our lives comes with its own challenges, opportunities for growth, and personal sense of purpose. Maybe the purpose of our later years is not to be productive; maybe it is to serve in the role of elder statesman and to love and support those who come behind us. That was certainly a role my dad filled for me.
If we are able to serve in that role and have a strong relationship with our children when we die, our children won't feel like a weight has been lifted, as Emanuel wrote, "... after a parent dies, there is much less pressure to conform to parental expectations and demands after they are gone."
If we have exercised our capacity to establish loving boundaries and have lived our lives based on our values while treating our parents with respect, love and compassion, we will not feel relief when they die -- only grief and loss. But we will also feel gratitude for the values and lessons they taught us. Their legacy will be a blessing, not a burden.
My dad's final gift to me was showing me how to age gracefully and die with dignity. I hope to do the same for my children, no matter how long I live.
David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.